7 signs America has gone crazy for ‘The Walking Dead’
The tale of those who survive after the dead have become walkers is a phenomenon that just won’t die. It keeps creating more and more iterations of itself. The first graphic novel in “The Walking Dead” ongoing series was published in 2003. HBO and NBC both passed on “The Walking Dead” television series before AMC claimed its golden-egg-laying goose. Since it first aired in 2010, AMC’s blockbuster, post-apocalyptic zombie show, “The Walking Dead,” has become a record-breaking hit, holding the number one spot for ages 18-49, and the most popular basic-cable drama ever.
The resulting zombie fever has spawned two successful TV spinoffs, several best-selling books, webisodes, games, merchandise, tourism and more — each success fueling the other. So in dread-filled anticipation of the TV’s show’s sixth season premiere on October 11, Fortune takes a look at all of the cultural offshoots.
Robert Kirkman created The Walking Dead (TWD) graphic novel in 2003. Published by Skybound (an imprint of Image comics), it now includes 24 volumes of 144 issues, and is also sold in hardcover collections. The long-running comic series has been fueled by the television show's success: by 2011, a year after the TV show began, TWD comics held 3 of the top 4 spots on the New York Times Bestseller list for paperback graphic novels, and the collections made it to 3 of the top 9 spots on the hardcover graphic novel bestseller list. Volume 24 is currently at number 6 in its fourth week on the paperback graphic books list.
There’s also a series of novels from St. Martin’s Press, written by Kirkman and novelist Jay Bonansinga. The five books focus on Walking Dead's Woodbury settlement and the infamous villain, the Governor, with the most recent book released this month. The first two novels made the New York Times bestseller list.
Not to mention the pop-up book, packed with TWD zombie gore, which is maybe not so great for the kids (just one reason being that it costs $65).
In The Walking Dead's first season in 2010, it became the number one drama on basic cable in the 18-49 age range and drew AMC’s biggest ratings of all time. In season two, it became the basic cable drama with the highest ratings ever. And the hits just keep on coming: Last season’s premiere had 17 million viewers tune in for the premiere, it became the most popular season, and the finale drew record numbers.
But wait, there’s more: 2011 brought the debut of the companion live television broadcast "Talking Dead," which follows the premiere airing of each episode to discuss what had just gone down. With host Chris Hardwick, it features TWD cast and crew and celebrity guests such as Slash and Conan O’Brien. Yes: an entire TV series to talk about another series, and as of last season it was the number 10 of all prime time entertainment shows in the 18-49 demo.
Talking Dead also has a podcast.
That’s not all: TWD’s long-anticipated spinoff drama set earlier in the zombie apocalypse, “Fear the Walking Dead”, debuted in August to record numbers. It was the no. 1 cable series launch ever, attracting 10.1 million viewers, and it ended out the season as the highest-rated first season of any cable series in history.
Oh, and there are also webisodes featuring bonus mini-dramas and dead-talking for all three TWD television series.
As fan favorite Norman Reedus (“Darryl” on the TV series) announced to his 2.7 million Instagram followers this week, a new TWD mobile game, No Man’s Land, debuted just in time for the season 6 premiere. A five-part episodic video game series from Telltale Games takes place in the comic series’ universe, and Telltale will also release a game starring the character Michonne. There’s a first-person shooter game by Activision following the brother characters Merle and Darryl (another first-person shooter from Overkill), an iOS app game, two Facebook games (one is no longer available), as well as a role-playing board game.
In 2013, an online Hyundai-branded game, The Chop Shop, allowed players to create their own survival vehicle for a chance to have that vehicle built and debuted at New York Comic-Con.
Predictably, TWD has spawned a universe of products. In terms of TWD licensed merchandise, there are role play replicas of favorite characters' weaponry like Darryl’s crossbow and Michonne’s katana. A zombie survival kit, zombie head lamps and string lights. Slim Jim snacks in the flavor “Carnage Asada."
For canine companions, a plush stretch toy zombie cut in (nearly) two pieces in the fashion of the infamous Well Walker. McFarlane toys is the licensee for all the expected collectible figurines and sets associated with a horror series, in this case including Dale’s RV, and cells and the boiler room from the prison.
At the priciest end of offerings on AMC’s official merch site, ShoptheWalkingDead.com., are a TWD pinball machine ($5,995 - $7,495) and six TWD guitar models, ranging from $399 - $599.
The fictional town of Woodbury is portrayed in the original AMC series by the real-life small town of Senoia, Georgia, and Senoia is also the location used for the series’ new stronghold, the town of Alexandria. Not only has Senoia become a tourist attraction for Walking Dead fans from around the world, but the influx has revitalized the downtown, according to Tray Baggarly, tourism director for Coweta County. From May through November when the show is filming in Senoia, “it’s got like a tailgate atmosphere,” Baggarly says, describing tourists sitting by the roadside with their coolers, waiting to see something.
The major attraction: A 15-foot metal wall built around the “Alexandria” section of the town. And a hub for those tourists to spend their dollars is The Woodbury Shoppe, which sells merchandise from both the AMC and Skybound TWD universes. Owner Carrie Cottrill told AMC that business “has exceeded all of our expectations. It’s been gangbusters” and that the biggest seller by far is their Woodbury-themed T-shirts.
And with numerous other filming locations in the area, Atlanta’s Big Zombie bus tour got so popular it produced its own spinoff, Big Zombie 2. According to the ticket vendor Zerve, over 5,000 customers have handed over $65 per ticket for these tours, which are led by guides from the set of TWD.
Around the country, there are zombie obstacle courses for fans. The Walking Dead Escape, billed as “the ultimate interactive fan experience," challenge participants (paying $40 - $100) to run, climb, crawl and hide through a series of scenarios as a survivor, or they could participate as walkers in full makeup.
Fans also converge at Walker Stalker Con, begun by two TWD podcasters, and aimed at for zombie, horror, and sci-fi fans.The first Atlanta Walker Stalker Con had 10,000 attendees, the 2014 Walker Stalker con in Atlanta attracted 35,000 fans, and this year’s is projected to have 50,000 attendees. General admission tickets range from $35 for one day (which doesn’t include autographs or photo ops), with admission for these fan fests are priced up to $1400 for a Platinum VIP weekend package.
Next up from the Walker Stalker crew, in partnership with Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and the publisher Skybound, is The Walking Dead Experience. It is fund by 421 backers for $152,009 Kickstarter, an immersive experience at all Walker Stalker Fests which locks participants inside truck trailers with walkers and challenges them to escape before being eaten.
Did you notice on the original AMC TWD series that during the prison era, the gang frequently motored about in a conspicuously-spotless, mint-green Hyundai Tuscon? You probably did, since the immaculate Tuscon lasted longer in the series than some characters. Yes, it was product placement aiming for that coveted 18-34 male demographic. Variety reported $375,000 for a top placement package on the series featuring a product over multiple spots. Hyundai’s deal came with a few caveats: “It can’t be used as a tank. It can’t be used to roll over zombies,” according to David Matathia, director of advertising at Hyundai.
AMC receives many requests for product placement in the show despite the lack of electricity in the characters’ off-grid existence; some would-be advertisers suggest their electronic device be written into flashbacks. Bing was one such company, and admitted a failed pitched storyline that the characters could find a library with a generator and perform a Bing search. However, it looks like even with limited TWD series product placement opportunities, AMC is going to be A-OK.